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THE NEW YORK Stock Exchange : At Manhattan's Sample Sales, It's Every Woman for Herself as Bargain Hunters Grab Designer Castoffs at 50% (and More) Off


NEW YORK — There is lust in the air, unadulterated longing among shoals of women parading 7th Avenue, past loading docks and up service elevators, searching for bargains at Manhattan's version of the souk: sample and stock sales.

On the first Monday morning in June--high season for these sales--50 women are stripped down to their bras and pantyhose in a dusty warehouse on 38th Street, pulling on slim trousers, polyester blazers and linen vests. They had waited in line in a warm drizzle to be first at the racks while there was still a semblance of order.

"I can't take this," groans Jeri Schecter, a 50ish woman with sunglasses pushed back in her thick blond hair. "I want to go to work."

She is stressed as only a woman can be when confronted with too many choices, competition for clothes, inadequate mirrors and a chance for 50% off.

While Schecter tries on clothes at this Philippe Adec sale, she also keeps an eye on her pocketbook at her feet and her own clothes, folded neatly over an exposed radiator. At a sale last season, Schecter's own pants were put on the rack and it took hours to find them.

Indeed, all pretenses of retail shopping disappear.

Instead of a carpeted dressing room, there is an open area with a scattering of mirrors. Instead of wood and glass display cases, there are metal racks arranged by sizes. And instead of a young salesclerk named Sean or Luke commenting, "That looks faaaaabulous on you," even though you look like the side of a barn, there are blunt assessments from other shoppers: Too tight. Too small. There's a stain. Bad color. Can I try that on?

Schecter relies on her friends for help. "There are 25 jackets in this color. Which one looks good on me?" she asks them. Real estate agents in the same firm, Schecter and her friends Maxine Adler and Sue Canold shop these sales so regularly together they know each others' sizes and figure flaws--perhaps better than their own husbands do.

Adler and Canold examine Schecter in the red pantsuit. The Size 6 pants are a perfect fit, but the jackets are a problem. The loose style is maybe too loose and the double-breasted style hugs maybe a little too tightly.

In desperation, Schecter turns for advice to Austria Rodriguez, a sales manager for North and South America for Philippe Adec who works as a salesclerk at these twice-yearly sales.

"Double-breasted is not your thing," Rodriguez candidly admits. She offers to root around for yet another style.

Schecter and her friends flee after two hours with each having spent about $400--cash only. The savings are significant. The double-breasted blazer they bought for $125, costs $239 at Bergdorf Goodman's 20 blocks north. The $70 silk blouse by Equipment they took home in a paper shopping bag costs $170 on Madison Avenue, where the wrapping is delicate tissue paper.

This is the secret world of 7th Avenue sample and stock sales--as intoxicating and whirlwind as a romantic affair, only more tedious. And rather than two conspirators, there are three.

There is the shopper--a select New York woman so consumed by style she forages the sales to satisfy and afford her need for color, proportion and designer labels.

There is the manufacturer, eager to dump leftover goods at the end of a season.

And there is the complaisant retailer, who hates the whole business, but what is he to do? Rumor has it that a few years ago a retailer ratted on a well-known designer for not charging taxes at his sample sales. While sources throughout the fashion world mention the incident, none provide details. For above all, the conspirators demand discretion. Even though vendors advertise sales in trade magazines and scores of women find out about them from flyers handed out on 7th Avenue, the affair is to remain an open secret.

"I don't want to upset my retailers in New York City because it's such a great market," says one vendor who asks for anonymity. "It's instant cash. There are no returns, no exchanges and no checks. And it keeps my label out of the outlets. That way I preserve my name."

Freda Soiffer, who conducts sales for popular designers, still considers them a private matter. "I'm not into hurting anybody," she says, refusing to reveal who she works for even though she informs thousands of shoppers of the sales by sending them postcards.

In the early 1980s, sample sales truly were exclusive. Vendors used them to pawn off last season's samples, usually Size 6s and 8s, at below-wholesale prices. Often the clothes had been worn by runway and magazine models and were mauled with safety pins, sweat and tape. Only the fashion cognoscenti--designers, their employees, magazine editors--were allowed in. Occasionally, they could bring a friend.

But in the last decade, the sales have expanded into a booming cottage industry, particularly at the end of the fall/winter and spring/summer selling seasons. Over the years the term "sample sale" has become a misnomer as vendors began using them to unload not just samples but also excess stock.

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